arXiv:1005.2534v1 [cs.OH] 14 May 2010
A DISCUSSION OF THIN CLIENT TECHNOLOGY FOR
Jes´ us Mart´ ınez-Mateo, Susana Munoz-Hernandez, David P´ erez-Rey
Facultad de Inform´ atica, Universidad Polit´ ecnica de Madrid, Campus de Montegancedo, Spain
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
thin client, e-learning, computer lab.
Computer literacy is not negotiable for any professional in an increasingly computerised environment. Ed-
ucational institutions should be equipped to provide this new basic training for modern life. Accordingly,
computer labs are an essential medium for education in almost any field. Computer labs are one of the most
popular IT infrastructures for technical training in primary and secondary schools, universities and other ed-
ucational institutions all over the world. Unfortunately, a computer lab is expensive, in terms of both initial
purchase and annual maintenance costs, and especially when we want to run the latest software. Hence,
research efforts addressing computer lab efficiency, performance or cost reduction would have a worldwide
repercussion. In response to this concern, this paper presents a survey on thin client technology for computer
labs in educational environments. Besides setting out the advantages and drawbacks of this technology, we
aim to refute false prejudices against thin clients, identifying a set of educational scenarios where thin clients
are a better choice and others requiring traditional solutions.
Traditional education has been hampered by the dif-
ficulties inherent in information and communication
technologies (ICT). Nowadays, modern education
faces a new challenge: the use of technology in the
classroom. Concerning these new educational chal-
lenges, probably one of the most popular is related to
improving computer lab performance. Note that con-
sidering the number of institutions that have to deal
with these infrastructures, any advantageousproposal
will have a worldwide repercussion.
There are a set of well-known problems that ed-
ucational institutions must address when using com-
puter labs. The main obstacles are usually related to
economic issues. Some institutions do not even have
computer labs due to unaffordable costs. The equip-
ment and the installation of a new computer lab is
very expensive. Moreover, both software and hard-
ware maintenance is a sustained cost over time. Soft-
ware and hardware evolve daily at a speed that most
institutions are unable to keep pace with. Thus soft-
ware and hardware upgrades especially are an ex-
pense that many institutions are unwilling to pay.
Thin client technology can be used to overcome
some of these problems. For instance, this technology
is an especially interesting option when upgrading an
educational computer lab, but it is not widespread
in these scenarios probably due to historical preju-
dices. An excessive triumphalism by supporters of
thin client technology, claiming the many advantages
of this technology sometimes rightly or wrongly but
usually without proper justification, may have led to
the early dismissal of thin client technology by many
professionals. It has often been relegated to an imma-
ture technology status. However, today there are so-
lutions based on thin client technologythat are simple
to use, and after many years of development and evo-
lution are highly reliable, which could be a very in-
teresting option in some specific scenarios. Some of
these solutions are the Linux Terminal Server Project
(LTSP) project1, especially designed for Unix-based
systems, or Lan Core2, a project originally focused
Figure 1: In a thin client network, all clients are continu-
ously connected to a common server in a centralised archi-
tecture. For each connection the server sends the desktop to
the client computer (the thin client). The user works using
a remote desktop session.
on the use of thin clients on Windows systems.
In this paper we summarise the main characteris-
tics of thin clients (Section 2), explicitly stating their
strengths and weakness related to the educational en-
identified a set of scenarios (Section 4) where the use
thin client technology is a good option, and some
2 THIN CLIENT TECHNOLOGY
From the very beginning of computing, around the
1950s, early computers had to be shared by multi-
ple users on economic grounds. Mainframes, mainly
known for their large size and priced according by,
evolved towards the interaction of a single computer
with multiple users. A few years later the first termi-
nal appeared: This was an specific device connected
to the mainframe enabling multiple users to access
and share computing resources through batch proces-
sing. The early terminals, today known as consoles,
worked in text mode only, and were connected via
serial lines. Therefore, a primitive type of general-
purpose device working much like a thin client was
there way back whenthe main commercialcomputers
first came on the scene.
Console terminals evolved gradually and continu-
ously for years until the advent of the personal com-
puter (PC) in the 1980s. Physical terminals were then
immediately replaced by PCs equipped with terminal
emulation software. Not only were PCs a substitute
for the old terminal devices, but they also marked a
profound change in the computing architecture. For
the first time, the client (i.e. the PC) had its own pro-
cessing capacity, leading to the client and server di-
vision. It was also a turning point for terminal com-
puting, where terminals became known as thin clients
and they were no longer connected to a central com-
puter directly, but via a network. New graphical op-
erating systems, including the new Unix-based sys-
tems (e.g. Linux), introduced the new desktop con-
cept. The client side in a thin client solution had to be
modified to be adapted to graphical devices (see Fig-
ure 1), new user interfaces, the mouse and other new
input and output devices.
Because of everything discussed above, today it is
not possible to find a primary reference introducing
the new concept of thin client, terminal, or diskless
that thin client technology has been always present in
computing, sometimes going by a different name or
terminology, running on primitive or highly evolved
hardware, even supported by entirely different oper-
ating systems, using batch processing, multitasking,
and other hardware and software sharing strategies.
2.1Thin Client Benefits
Thin client technology can make a network adminis-
trator’s job easier for three main reasons: it is easy
to manage, easy to secure and easy on the bud-
get (Romm, 2006). An explanation of each one of
these benefits follows:
1. A thin client network is easy to manageand main-
tain thanks to its centralised set-up and support. It
simplifies troubleshooting, network management,
and monitoring among other things.
2. Security is provided intrinsically by the architec-
ture of a thin client solution. Input devices such
as local Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports are eas-
ily disabled, thus avoiding a common source of
viruses. The integration of firewall functional-
ity in every computer in the network (i.e. a dis-
tributed firewall) is possible by just configuring a
firewall on the server (Ioannidis et al., 2000).
3. The use of thin client technology is low cost in
terms of hardware (see Figure 2), software (just
one licence for the server), set-up and mainte-
nance (see Figure 3).
05 1015 2025
Figure 2: Evolution of the price (vertical axis in euros) per
unit (PC or thin client) according to the number of installed
workstations (horizontal axis). This estimate has been cal-
culated assuming the following costs: PC 600 EUR, thin
client 400 EUR, and server 1000 EUR; with an incremen-
tal discount (n×0.5%) depending on the number of units
Points one andtwo are related to the fact that there
is only one processor and point three is related to the
simplicity of the thin client technology. In the context
of this paper there is one property of thin client tech-
nologythat shouldbeemphasised: a thinclient has no
need of high processing capacity. Note that it will not
run anything apart from the hardware and software
needed to properly visualise the graphical user in-
terface. Accordingly low-performance hardware (i.e.
out-of-date computers or “ancient hardware”) could
be used to build a thin client. Considering these bene-
fits, thin clients are an attractive technology for insti-
tutions with old computers, budget concern and lim-
ited maintenance staff (i.e. more than 80% of the ed-
ucational institutions in the world, most of them in
2.2 Green Computing
only due to increasing energy costs, but also from
the standpoint of natural resources and environmental
conservation. There are many reasons for implement-
inggreenITsystems, andhardwarethatis specifically
designed for thin clients seems to fit in perfectly here
In a comparison with other alternatives that have
similar possibilities to thin clients on other counts,
of its aptness for green computing.
Figure 3: Estimated hours of maintenance per week (ver-
tical axis) depending on the number of workstations (hori-
zontal axis), comparing PCs versus thin clients.
Probably the main feature of a thin client is that
users do not appreciate any difference from a desktop
PC when they first come into contact with the device.
The desktop displayed by a thin client is exactly the
same as one shown by a PC. This property of thin
client technology is essential in educational labs and
it is one of the strengths of this technology. Using
thin clients students can acquire the same skills that
they could learn using PCs because they actually use
the same tools and applications(runningon the server
instead of on their own machines).
Another important strength of thin clients is that
most of the applications used on a PC, such as those
included in an office suite (e.g.
in Windows operating systems or Open Office for
Linux) will probably run on a network with thin
clients. Similarly, Wikipedia (probably the most vis-
ited website on the Internet in academic environ-
ments) also has these advantages.
On the other hand, the thin client techno-
logy’s main weakness materialises in what are
technically referred to as high-motion scenarios
(Deboosere et al., 2007). High-motion scenarios in-
• Streaming multimedia: video and audio are al-
most prohibitive using thin clients.
• Motion graphics: animations, slide effects, etc.,
are processes that are often affected by a desktop
• Applications requiring a powerful graphics card:
everything related to games and 3D rendering.
• Latency-sensitive applications, where the time it
takes an event to reach the client through a net-
work is critical.
Hence, thin client technology is not an alternative
for scenarios with these requirements, but it could be
an optimal solution in the near future due to several
technical developments attempting to overcome the
above weaknesses (Simoens et al., 2008).
4 COMMON ACADEMIC
Each computer-based environment has particular re-
quirements that need to be consideredto find the opti-
mal hardware and software solution. Looking at thin
clients, some advantages and limitations of this tech-
nology will act as detriment or incentive for a thin
client solution. Below we analyse the main academic
scenarios regarding thin client suitability.
As discussed above(Figures 2 and3) thin clients have
an edge in terms of budget and maintenance concerns
over PCs in installations from five and eight com-
puters respectively. This covers almost all computer
labs in education. Thus a computer lab intended for
traditional computer-based learning may also benefit
from thin clients if they support the required tools. A
previous study suggests that most tools used in the
academic environment can be used with thin clients
(Brinkley, 2006). The results of this research are con-
clusive: of the 45 tools used in this case, only three
could not be used, and there were some minor prob-
lems with another three. The rest of tools run cor-
rectly using thin client technology.
Technology facilitates student participation and
computer labs are beginning to be used with this aim
(Peiper et al., 2004). Although there are interactiv-
ity increments in collaborative environments they are
supported by thin client technology.
4.2 Distance Learning
Distance learning is a relatively modernacademic sit-
uation in computer-based learning, where ICTs are
used to circumventthe boundariesof a physical class-
room. This is a wider scenario than the one consid-
ered in a computer lab. A range of situations depend-
ing on studentand professorlocationare listed below:
• Local students and professors.
computer-enhanced learning to meet today’s ICT
literacy need. This situation is spreading fast and
is being combined with novel trends, such as dig-
ital ink (Section 4.4), which are suitable to work
on thin clients.
• Local students with a remote professor. Students
a lecture by a remote professor. Not a common
situation at traditional universities,it is an optimal
solution in most cooperationfordevelopmentsce-
narios. It is also suitable for thin client implemen-
tations due to the number of computers required
and the limited budget and staff available.
• Remote students with a local professor. Students
sources. This is the new model being adopted by
universities worldwide and not suitable for thin
clients (Casella et al., 2007).
• Remote students and professors. Pure e-learning
scenario also not suitable for thin clients.
Although the last two situations rule out a thin
client solution given that the academic organization
is not providing computers to access the resources,
thin client implementations have been proven to be a
feasible solution for use in most “local student” situ-
4.3 Web-based Learning
Web-based solutions are in widespread use for e-
learning. These solutions could be part of distance
learning or e-learning generally, but we have pre-
ferred to examine them separately due to their wide
Special-purpose hardware for thin clients or com-
mon PCs operate here as thin clients for remote
learning, since its limitations do not affect most
web applications. Some educational solutions that
use web-based services have already proposed the
use of thin client technology in the classroom
(Andria et al., 2007). Even web-based scenarios in-
cluding complex requirements are good scenarios for
the use of thin clients (Callaghan et al., 2007), pro-
vide they do not use multimedia or high-motion ser-
4.4 Digital Ink
New technologies are making a claim for a place in
education in the classroom. Most of these technolo-
gies are publicised as new e-learning strategies, but
some, such as digital ink, should be studied sepa-
rately. It is not possible to decide whether a sce-
nario is suitable for the use of thin client technology,
based only on the above strengths and weaknesses. In
this case, digital ink should be singled out from other
e-learning strategies because it proposes the use of
special-purpose hardware devices instead of common
computersusedin conventionale-learning. Forexam-
ple, a proposal for the use of the Classroom Presen-
ter3application (a software platform for digital ink)
recommends the use of tablet PCs by students. Table
PCs are really modern devices for which a thin client
is no suitable (Anderson et al., 2007).
4.5 Education in Developing Countries
Health and education are fundamental aspects for a
country’sdevelopment. Education,especially in tech-
nical fields, is an important goal if developing coun-
tries are to emulate the information access opportuni-
ties of developed nations (Krikke, 2004). However,
an educational institution in a developing country
cannot afford the cost of setting up and maintaining
a computer lab. Cooperation for development guide-
lines call for the use of sustainable technologies and
solutions, meaning the purely financial contribution
of purchasing a computer lab is not acceptable. Thin
client technology could further the use of computer
labs in developing countries in a sustainable way. In
this regard the following is an example of a success
story in terms of the technology proposed in this pa-
In 2006 the Technology for Development and Co-
operation (TEDECO) Group4led by professors of the
School of Computing at Universidad Polit´ ecnica de
Madrid, Spain, launched a new distance education
project at University of Ngozi (UNG), in Burundi.
A committee formed by members of the TEDECO
group and expert engineers explored several options
for setting up two computer labs at UNG. The limited
budget and the availability of very old computer re-
sources were key points to consider when making a
final decision (Mart´ ınez-Mateo et al., 2009).
The use of thin client technology in computer
labs proved to be a success, especially taking into
account that it was tested in a really tough environ-
technical support staff working exclusively on main-
tenance. The project was considered a success due
to (Mart´ ınez-Mateo et al., 2010): (i) the increase in
the number of subjects that were offered over an e-
learning platform like Moodle using the new com-
puter labs, (ii) the increase in the number of students
choosing to study at UNG, and (iii) the offer of a new
course (fourth year) as result of student demand and
the new subjects offered.
4.6 Unsuitable Scenarios
Although tt is important to ascertain the main scenar-
ios where the use of thin client technologyis suitable,
it is even more necessary to identify scenarios where
ios that are unsuitable forthe use of client technology,
always keep in mind the key weakness highlighted in
Section 3: high-motion. A list of scenarios that are
not suitable for thin clients follows:
• Distance learning, unless it requires the physical
presence of students in a classroom.
• Multimedia learning, which is a discipline that
has beenespeciallydevelopedin certainsectors of
education, such as medicine (Ruiz et al., 2006).
• Mobile learning.
not be implemented with thin clients. These sce-
narios require the use of special devices that are
not covered by the current thin client technology.
As stated in Section 4.4, e-
Although there are unsuitable scenarios related to
multimedia, video, and other high-motion resources,
the majority of computer-based scenarios do not re-
quire these features. Therefore,thin client technology
is an alternative that is worthwhile considering.
Computer-based learning methodologies and related
infrastructures are essential nowadays at any level of
the academic world. Computer labs and required ICT
are becoming an economic and staff resource barrier
more effective solutions will have a practical impact
Thin client technologies have proven to be a good
option for reducing budget and maintenance require-
ments in scenarios with more than five to eight com-
puters. However, it would be a mistake to defend this
solution without examining what use is going to be
made of the lab equipment. There are many educa-
tional scenarios where thin clients are cheaper to use,
easier to maintain and easier to upgrade. In this pa-
per, we have identified the main advantages and limi-
would improve global computer literacy.
We wouldliketothanktheUniversidadPolit´ ecnicade
Madrid’s Office of Cooperation for the Development
for its financial an logistic support5, and the mem-
bers of TEDECO groupfor their interest, constructive
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